The Blues have had plenty to digest this week – with Piri Weepu’s stroke top of the list.
No doubt it will be an emotional occasion for the men from Auckland, with the return of All Black veterans Ma’a Nonu and Jerome Kaino to the starting XV adding further spice to the occasion.
And it the weather forecast of fine conditions with light winds holds true, this should shape up nicely to be a high-octane try-fest. Neither team has trouble scoring, although they sometimes tend to leak some first-half points and then go into overdrive after the break – producing some fine displays of catch-up.
In fact both sides leaked 30-plus points in their last outings. The Highlanders’ forward pack has been strengthened, with Jarrad Hoeta, Ged Robinson and Chris King all returning.
The Highlanders beat the Blues by eight in Round Two, but their record in Auckland isn’t flash. While Blues coach John Kirwan was happy with last week’s fortuitous victory over the Cheetahs, he also acknowledge that his side would have to work much harder this week – as they can’t expect the same leniency that they received from Argentinean referee Francisco Pastrana, a performance so pitiful that it cost the match official his job.
“We had a win that we were happy with and we got maximum points,” he said of the 40-30 triumph over the Cheetahs. “However, I think we just need to look more at our own performance,” Kirwan added.
“We realise that we’re going to have to be better to beat the Highlanders. “They’re a better football team this year, they’re playing really well, they’ve got confidence so we need to tidy up one or two of our things and just get a little bit harder on each other about performing for the full 80 minutes.”
2014: Highlanders won 29-21, Dunedin
2013: Highlanders won 38-28, Dunedin
2013: Blues won 29-18, Auckland
2012: Highlanders won 27-20, Auckland
2012: Highlanders won 30-27, Dunedin
2011: Blues won 33-16, Auckland
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 George Moala, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Luke Braid (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Tom Donnelly, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Sonatane Takulua, 22 Pita Ahki, 23 Benji Marshall.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (co-captain), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Shaun Treeby.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)